Re-Writing The Headlines About Hebrew Schools

As a professional Jewish educator, I try to stay current on the field of Jewish education by reading the latest articles and studies. I want to see if we are on target in the work that we do, I want to discover new ideas and strategies and I also want to be inspired and supported. Even though I am 20 years in the field, I still desperately need all of these things.

For years now, though, almost everything I read is about supplemental Jewish education — AKA “Hebrew School,” “religious school,” or “Sunday School” — is far from inspiring or supportive.

Supplemental Jewish religious school educators have been getting a lot of blatant criticism and even blame, for not only the work we do but for major implications down the road. The list of accusations thrown at supplemental schools include everything from blaming religious schools for weaker Jewish identity to rising intermarriage rates. Back in 1995, one study even suggested that “those who attend Sunday school score lower on standard measures of Jewish identity than people who had no Jewish education at all.”

Seriously?

How can we pin blame on supplemental school teachers… especially when as a community, we have failed these teachers in every way?

We have given them a holy task – instilling Jewish knowledge and identity in our next generation— and followed up by providing little to no support. We don’t put professional development for teachers in our congregational budget lines. And then think we have the right to say what a bad job they do. Chutzpah!

Many of the authors of these studies and articles have graduate degrees and are regarded as experienced researchers, but few of them have been in the classroom as a teacher recently; some have never been classroom teachers at all. I absolutely know that NONE OF THEM have been to visit the 60 schools that we serve in our Southern region. You would think that researchers would find 60+ schools a reasonably-sized sampling, especially when these schools range in size from one student to over 300 and are even trans-denominational.

No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake my frustration with this negative slamming of religious schools. So at this year’s ISJL Education Conference, I took these headlines to my keynote session, addressing the 150 assembled participants at this annual event. The majority of the teachers we serve are volunteer. These headlines claim to be about them — but as I felt, and they agreed, these headlines do not represent them.

No Jewish education at all seems an awfully bitter solution. Wouldn’t it be better to come together at an annual conference, share best practices, share a curriculum, get visits from Education Fellows who teach our teachers, and … continue committing to educate our children?

The answer is an overwhelming yes, at least down South.

I began my keynote session by asking the participants to share some of our “goosebump moments,” and everyone was eager to share the highlights of the joyful learning happening in their classrooms.

After letting the participants share their “goosebump moments,” I read them the negative headlines — and let this group of elated and proud educators get completely destroyed. Quoting the articles, I informed all the eager participants in the room they were unqualified to be doing their jobs. I told them that their classrooms were the reasons that Jewish children have negative feelings about Judaism as adults. You’re failing, I told them sarcastically. The articles told me so.

And then I asked them if any of the researchers had been to their synagogues, to their schools, to their classrooms. Not one hand was raised.

I chose a few of the “absolute solutions” offered by the articles (such as eliminating weekly religious school and instead doing a monthly family session; or making all learning online instead of any classroom time at synagogues). These recommendations were shot down, and for some pretty well-articulated reasons… such as the fact that they went against the value of creating community, bringing Jewish children together to study and experience Judaism, even in small-town settings.

Here’s the thing: I also know we have room to improve. My frustration comes from these shockingly negative articles not only slamming the efforts above listed, but also for speaking for people they have never even met. One of the rules of Jewish education is that there are no absolutes, and yet these articles are full of absolutes, and indictments, and solutions that do NOT represent the families we know and support.

So we did what any group of amazing Jewish educators would do: We turned it and turned it until we turned these negative and unrepresentative statements around, until they represented our truth. We took back our voices.

I closed with a promise. That I would share OUR headlines with these naysayers and that I would let them know that supplementary Jewish education is working, and can be dynamic and wonderful.

Here are some of my favorite NEW headlines, created by a group of actual Jewish supplemental religious school teachers:

  • “We’re Planting Seeds To Grow Engaged Jewish Adults!”
  • “Our Religious Schools Shape Jewish Identity & Create Relationships That Strengthen Jewish Community!”
  • “New Ideas, Resources & Strategies Hit Our Classrooms Every Week!”

Now, these are headlines I can kvell about!

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